Lawmakers mull arming village officers

Committees in both the House and the Senate centered the legislative discussion Tuesday on rural Alaska and the village public safety officers who strive to maintain order out in the bush.

The Senate focus centered on SB98. Sponsored by Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, the proposal would remove the restriction that currently bans VPSOs from carrying firearms while working.

“There’s been more and more violence with public safety officers and village public safety officers in particular,” Olson said during a brief testimony before the committee.

David Scott, Olson’s chief of staff, said the senator believes “it’s not reasonable to ask VPSOs to walk unarmed into situations that pose obvious dangers.”

Should the bill become law, individual organizations who oversee the VPSOs would still have to approve their officers using firearms, and there would be training required of the officers before they were allowed to carry on the job.

“It’s more than just handling the firearm,” Terry Vrabec, the Department of Public Safety’s deputy commissioner, said of the training that would be required. “There is a lot of training when it comes to someone who is carrying a weapon.”

That training includes lessons about how to diffuse high-intensity situations with a number of non-lethal tactics, and, ultimately, how to act when deadly force is necessary, Vrabec added.

There are currently about 100 VPSOs statewide, and there are plans to hire an additional 15, Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said.

“I am concerned about ensuring adequate training for new VPSOs we hire, but I cringe at the thought of the dangerous situations we’re sending them into when often times they’re the only ones unarmed,” Micciche said.

“We have to make sure we provide them the tools that keep them safe and keep the villagers they’re there to protect safe,” he added.

Former DPS commissioner Joe Masters was leading the department when a VPSO was killed last year. He told the committee Tuesday that VPSO are currently experiencing serious assaults about once a month.

“Those types of incidents do not give VPSOs the luxury of calling for backup or waiting for troopers to arrive,” Masters said. “And they often don’t give an opportunity to retreat.”

It would “not be a good stance to take” to say only certified police officers should or could carry firearms in the line of duty, he added.

“This must be done,” Masters said. “The VPSO program is changing, demands in the community are changing and what we’re facing is changing.”

At the core, Masters’ choosing to support this bill came down to a single reason, he said.

“Simply, it’s the right thing to do.”

• Contact reporter Matt Woolbright at 523-2243 or at matthew.woolbright@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/reportermatt.

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